Myriam Van Imschoot makes performances, creates sound poetry and vocal pieces, exhibits video and sound installations. She holds a unique position in the Belgian art field, moving between institutional fields and media, with a keen interest to experiment with contexts when not creating her own. After a nine-month residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Myriam Van Imschoot presented Yodel Portrait Phil Minton, a new film on the British singer and living legend Phil Minton in early 2017. Van Imschoot had an international breakthrough with the vocal and radiophonic performance What Nature Says (2015), which will be shown in Berlin, October 4–5 at Hebbel am Ufer, HAU3.
In the interview, she talks about human sounds without using the vocal cords, her interest in yodeling and she denominates the detriment of our living sound archives.
Myriam Van Imschoot’s piece What Nature Says is based on the vocal imitation by humans of the sounds of nature. Her piece focuses on sound biotopes in crisis. From this, the new spin-off work Chorus in cc, inspired by the stridulations of insects, was shown at the festival MaerzMusik in Berlin earlier this year. Chorus in cc was developed in collaboration with the crew of What Nature Says – Fabrice Moinet, Jean-Baptiste Veyret-Logerias, Mat Pogo, Caroline Daish, Anne-Laure Pigache; and with the kind contribution of 25 Berlin based volunteer performers. Photo above: Beata Szparagowska
Franziska: Myriam Van Imschoot, in Chorus in cc you created a ,minimal drone en masse’ together with a group of people. The sounds were very delicate and made the audience become very quiet. How did you develop that?
Myriam Van Imschoot: My experience, when you work with threshold sounds like sounds that are on a level just above perceptible, that it actually makes people more quiet than when you gonna speak very loud or give very loud sounds. It’s a basic advise or rule when you speak to a lot of people just start speaking in the beginning very low and you’ll draw the attention and by that you also give a message that you want to be in another amplitude of sound, that it’s about listening, about listening differently and from there on you can built and create other nuances. But indeed Chorus in cc is a performance that very much works on the threshold of what’s above silence and especially working with sounds that enter a range of very high frequency. We’re very used to listen to the human voice which is in a particular bandwidth, but to work with hisses and very high frequencies is a second challenge for this kind of work.
How does that function?
A very big difference for example to beatboxing, which also has a lot of specific percussive sounds that can be made with the mouthbox, we are producing a continuous stream of sound that we let pass through the mouthbox that we pulsate and give rhythm by our limbs and by the body that is moving. It does create a different thought of beat and rhythm which is, I would say, closer to the kind of non-musical beat that I’m looking for. I’m not looking for a musical beat but for a polyphonic rhythm. It’s a long stream and it’s pulsated by the fact that people are shaking hands or arms or their torsos. They don’t do anything else than making white noise on different frequency levels. Shhhh, ssssss, and from this on everything else is built.
How did you find out about that?
In the previous work, called What Nature Says which was a group piece made with five performers and one sound artist we had as a challenge and as a task, to see how far we could go as human vocalists in imitating the sounds of nature. To my surprise, I didn’t know that we would be able to imitate really that much of the world around us. We worked a lot with field recordings of biotopes everywhere in the world, often I made them myself because I did quite some research for that piece and also field recordings of friends and other people. So one of the first field recordings that was very inspirational for us was made in the African savannah where they have cicadas that are very interesting because they work in a very dry landscape. We fell in love with this sound and it was one of the first sounds that entered the piece. Later while we were making the piece we said, we felt that we actually could choose to make piece A or we could make another piece. The choice we had was ,are we gonna make a piece where we as a group gonna represent the world in a very symphonic way, with many soundscapes and many different types of sound, or are we gonna make a very hardcore minimal music piece with only a couple of textures?’. For that piece we did the first, we made a great symphonic orchestral piece and we always said we would like to make a side-piece or as a spin-off, a piece that is monochromatic that works with one texture only, and within that texture with variety and difference. That’s the desire behind Chorus in cc.
What is your notion of what a ,vocal gesture‘ is?
It’s a very funny second title of Chorus in cc because the sounds that we’re making is hardly vocal at all, were not using the vocal cords. To make sound you don’t always need your vocal cords, so only at the end vocal cords are used for making this harmonic humming hhmmm, like sort of airplane sound so it’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek – it’s a sound piece made by humans and yet it’s not so much involving the voice. A lot of what I do when I’m producing sound involves gesture. I work very physical with sound and I also think that sound can really communicate in a way that touches language but isn’t language and that’s also why I’m drawn to gesture. The piece is actually a sound gesture.
Does that include reaching out a long distance by yodeling?
Yes, you’ve got that. Intrinsically I think sound is an intent to exist and to communicate and that implies space and distance. It’s always bridging space or distance and I’ve been mostly working in the past with particular types of sounds that could travel a long way. That’s how I got interested in crying, in arabic undulations and also in yodeling because that’s a great great technique to prepare your sound very far if needed. The score of Chorus in cc does also work with proximity and distance and creating a relation between people in the room.
Is your work a kind of re-inventing of what has been there before, or re-defining our ability to listen? Because that seems to be getting worse and worse rapidly. But the human voice takes you in like nothing else.
There’s something childlike in what we do because we’re adults imitating species and maybe for some weird reason being very serious there as well. It also could be seen as something sad about it, that while nature or the world is in crisis and it’s rapidly changing under the touch of humans – which isn’t always a gentle touch – a lot of also by putting this in line with the sounds around us, that we’re amplifying them, holding on to them.
The sound of Chorus in cc, the cicadas and the crickles, they are really ancient, they are sounds that existed centuries before us. When we did a workshop we did this test ,close your eyes and see how you can imagine those sounds‘ – you can visit your own personal archive and evoke the sounds, call them up. Everybody has a memory of some sort of sounds that belong to one’s personal archive. The sad news is that those sounds that have existed such a long time are actually disappearing. There’s been a lot of recent news articles making an alarm for the disappearance of the sounds of Europe and that are sounds that people afterwards not naturally be able to evoke. When species are becoming extinct or challenged, how much that is also to the detriment of our living sound archives. There is not always so much literacy in hearing and listening to sounds or understanding what is actually being signaled within them. That these are very intricate communication systems so it’s very inspiring to work with material in this time that we’re living in.
Myriam Van Imschoot’s first music theatre production “IN KOOR!” (with Willem Dewolf) was premiered in April in the art center Campo in Gent. The production is currently on tour, next performances will be at Kaaitheater, Brussels on September 21 and at Vlaams Cultuurhuis De Brakke Grond, Amsterdam on September 22.
Among her many projects and activities she launched the platform oralsite.be for artists publications in a digital environment five years ago. Together with a team she developed software that would allow more expanded publications especially also to integrate sound, and possibilities to annotate it, to subtitle it and to graph it. The website is a strong place for orality and information that comes through sound. It started off with experimental publication projects dealing with dance in many forms. After a couple of years sound poetry, compilations and archival projects of rare sound poetry groups like of the Australian group Arf Arf were included on the website.
I’m not like a big technological geek but I do feel that there’s still an utopian possibility even when the internet is already so recuperated and appropriated by commercial. I still think it’s also a place where you can find niches to show new types of publications. That’s a side project of my performance and video work.